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This is what heart looks like!: Nobody was able to get by pacesetter Moreno until very late in the 10-furlong Suburban Handicap (II).

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Belmont at Its Best: The Inaugural Stars and Stripes Festival

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It was good to see ol’ Secretariat again, all aglow in the summer sunshine on Stars and Stripes Day.

I would describe myself as a dedicated racing fan, but in the same breath, mention that I am also a drive-by-myself, full-time floor scrubbin’, just-graduated-from-college kid who drives a duct-taped 1999 Toyota Camry and scoffs at the thought of paying for gas AND the insane bridge tolls in New York. So with that said, I have to pick the days I go to the track wisely where I can get the most bang for my buck, and lucky for me, the inaugural Stars and Stripes Festival repaid me for my efforts.

It’s not commonplace for most U.S. races to attract very many international entries, but the purse sizes of the $1.25 million Belmont Derby Invitational (I), formerly the Jamaica Handicap (I), and the $1 million “Win and You’re In” Belmont Oaks Invitational (I), formerly the Garden City stakes (I), lured a handful of promising three-year-olds from their stomping grounds to Long Island. Attracting just 5 horses last year, the revitalized $500,000 Suburban Handicap (II) drew a full field of routers going the original 10 furlongs again. Even the James Marvin Handicap-turned-$400,000 Belmont Sprint Championship, “just” a G3 status race, beckoned a full field that demanded respect. It was a great day in the making for racing fans, paired with a mystery voucher and T-shirt giveaway and most importantly— food trucks! I’M STILL GROWING! Maybe not any taller, but WIDER!

Almost immediately upon opening the gates to the track, there was a crowd. Not the massively overwhelming type or the type full of drunk college kids— I saw not a single one all day— but a lot of families and racing fans, many of whom seemed to be there for the first time. Between all the food trucks of virtually every taste and texture and the outrageously perfect weather, the atmosphere of the day was sublime.

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Sam the Bugler gives a bugling lesson early in the card and took some selfies with the kids

Most important aspect of the day that is impossible to leave out: the racing! For the first time in a while, I had a good betting day at Belmont Park although regretfully I did not wager half as much as I should have since for once, I did not sift through the card beforehand. Lesson learned, I suppose! There was a lot of value plays that panned out for the lucky few and so many excellent performances, some of which I think will go down as very memorable moments:

In the Dwyer (III), which was won last year by my guy Moreno— one of my few and proudest straight trifecta victories!— there was a small group of three-year-olds, offering one of the stiffest opportunities at the betting terminals. Kid Cruz, hot off a sizzling Easy Goer Stakes win a month ago, was the horse to beat, going up against undefeated stablemate Captain Serious and the promising challenger Tiz Dark. In the end, the race set up perfectly for the 3-5 Kid Cruz, who swept in late just as he did in June for another deserving graded stakes win. It was a proud moment again for me, after I had to deal with post-Preakness shame after listing him on top, the only career start of his that he totally blew. Watch out for this closer in the coming months! Final say: Kid Cruz is the real deal! Obviously bad betting race!

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I have labeled myself a pretty blah sprint handicapper, and my usual go-to strategy of betting the Speightstown in the race was looking pretty folly as Central Banker, a horse who has grown into his role quite a bit this year, was the likely favorite. The inaugural Belmont Sprint Championship (III) had lots of good horses, but I admit to not really checking it out from a betting perspective. That wound up not being the real draw as the race caught fire in the stretch; Clearly Now came up from off the pace and just plain took off like he was breaking from the gate again, putting some serious daylight between himself and the rest of the horses. I was so flattered and in awe, and it came as no surprise as it was announced that he had broken the track record for 7 furlongs. Amazing. Final say: Clearly Now steals the show! Best performance I’ve seen in a while!

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For older horses, the Suburban Handicap (II) welcomed back the 10-furlong distance much to the delight of traditionally-minded handicappers, with 11 horses entered, with many stretching out from a mile or taking the next step up from the overplayed 9-furlong distance. I’ve long had eyes and heart for Moreno, who broke wonderfully with the blinkers back on and set out to set a very modest pace out on the lead. The son of Ghostzapper held off challenges that came early and late, ultimately falling in the final moments of the stretch to the deep closer Zivo. A 5-year-old bred in New York and trained by Chad Brown, the heart displayed by Zivo did not mar the tough beat that was handed to Moreno. I hope to see a lot more from this gun show, but he certainly won’t be overlooked by anyone again. Betting-wise, I stayed out of this one yet again, sensing an upset somehow but not knowing who it would be; Last Gunfighter always seems to drop the ball in big graded races and I’ve never liked Romansh. (On a side note, Zivo was that type of horse you see at long odds and wonder what was wrong, what you weren’t immediately seeing that you should have. Bettors failed themselves in this race at 13-1!) Final say: Great race with terrifically gutsy top two! Wish I had show-betted Moreno after all. Aw well, I think Saratoga will be kind to him.

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Considered the highlight of the day despite its non-“Win and You’re In” status, the Belmont Derby (I) attracted some classy Euro shippers to fight the American contingent, which featured the prominent speed demon Bobby’s Kitten. Aidan O’Brien’s Adelaide [GB] was the deserving favorite but had some serious challengers in the form of Gailo Chop, Flamboyant [FR], and Pornichet [FR]. The morning line favoritism fell to poly specialist Toast of New York, who’d be getting another shot on the turf after initially failing on it in his debut, off of which he blossomed into a different horse. With so many shippers, it was reasonable to forget about the Americans… but to such disregarding odds, it was unfathomable. The tempo of the Derby built up to a raucous stretch drive with multiple horses flying late; Adelaide’s patient stalking position gave way to a flurried flight to the front, but he was not alone— storming up the rail came the black silks and cherry cap of the Phipps Stable. Mr Speaker! The connections of Toast of New York could be heard down along the rail, “COME ON, JAMIE [OSBOURNE]! COME ON JAMIE!” But the race turned from a scrambled stretch drive to a duel between two, and in a determined final rush, it was Mr Speaker who ebbed and yawed his way through to win. Considered a potential major player earlier in the year, Mr Speaker captured G1 status that day at an unfathomable 23-1 odds, paying out $49 to his supporters for a $2 win wager. Final say: Holy cow Mr Speaker! I dare not compare him to Point of Entry, but he was so game!

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The final stake of the afternoon, which would invite its victor to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in November, was the first-ever Belmont Oaks (I). Considered the easier of the two big turf races by many handicappers, who were mainly leading toward Euro entry Wonderfully [IRE], it was still a very wide-open affair, especially considering the major upset in the Derby. If I liked anyone in the field, it had to be the beautiful Flying Jib by looks and Sea Queen by virtue of her Christophe Clement connections (although Clement had another filly by Arch in Summer Solo). Again, it was the American turf trainers who showed the way on their home course— Coolmore’s Chad Brown-trained filly Minorette, who packed a wicked turf pedigree, flew courageously to the front late and went eyeball-to-eyeball with the always game Sea Queen. It was a scintillating show that paired with the Belmont Derby like a fine wine, each with the top two boxing it out at the end. Longshot and previously undefeated Summer Solo hashed out the trifecta for a day the Americans joyfully dominated. Final say: We’ll get ‘em next time, Sea Queen! Minorette the deserving, good-looking winner!

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I am so annoyed at myself for not doing my homework a little more on the races, which I strongly feel I would have won more on if I had chosen to handicap them beforehand like I almost always do— by nature, I always put down Lezcano-ridden turf horses as well as Clement and Brown horses regardless of surface. But also by law, if I don’t do my homework beforehand, I don’t typically allow myself to bet. I found out too late that Minorette is a half-sister to an old favorite of mine, Master of Hounds. Ugh! I gotta get it together for Saratoga! I can’t complain too much though, since I still managed to profit off that free $5 voucher I got from attending the races, mostly thanks to the 10-1 Michael Matz horse who won race 1.

On the drive home, many questions surfaced: how good did my photos come out? Is traffic on I-91 going to be bad with the holiday rush? And most importantly, how good did Belmont do with today? I begged the racing gods that the Stars and Stripes went very well for the business end of the sport, and it appears that prayer has been answered with some 11,000 in attendance with more than $18 million wagered.

If you didn’t get to go to this event, do try to make it next year! It beat out most other NYRA days I’ve attended since I started going in 2012 and even many Saratoga days. Next time I will surely do my homework…

Come off it Zivo, it’s not that hot out!

Come off it Zivo, it’s not that hot out!

Bold Ruler defeats Clem at Belmont Park in 1958. The race is either the Toboggan Handicap or the Suburban Handicap. (Photo by NYRA/Bob Coglianese)

Bold Ruler defeats Clem at Belmont Park in 1958. The race is either the Toboggan Handicap or the Suburban Handicap. (Photo by NYRA/Bob Coglianese)

Weekend Stake Tip: Mucho the Man

Not the best of weekends, but you can’t win ‘em all. The Suburban (II) proved indeed to be a hard race to figure out, though I was glad to see the DRF’s ridiculous pick in Buffum not work out. SWEAR TO GOD, they could say anyone could win and that horse will be bet to death far more than they should have been. Notable victorious wagers were spreads on Game On Dude, Richard’s Kid, and Kettle Corn in the Hollywood Gold Cup (I) and Marketing Mix in the Dance Smartly. Most regrettably, I missed an opportunity I would have definitely taken betting on Winter Memories' sister, La Cloche (Ghostzapper), who won the Voodoo Dancer Stakes at Belmont on Sunday. Aw!

This coming weekend I hope to change things up a bit by making some Pick 3s and Pick 4s, going horizontal instead of vertical. I might try that repeatedly-carried over Belmont Pick 6 on Thursday, who knows!

The best race of the weekend was arguably one of the toughest to handicap. The Suburban Handicap (II) has a storied tradition of producing greats, and this year, it attracted a nice field of 8 with three G1 winners and for the most part, a ton of good value all around. Favorite To Honor and Serve broke better this time from the far outside, and as predicted, speedy Trickmeister set a solid early pace with closer Hymn Book tracking in the rear. I got a little excited that Endorsement (who had ridiculously good odds at 18-1!) was on the verge of a big breakthrough with his pacestalking trip, but unfortunately, the non-Lasix’d entry faded as Hymn Book and Mucho Macho Man surfaced late to pass a defiant Trickmeister. I wonder if Hymn Book had been closer, if the results would have been different, but all in all, Mucho Macho Man ran a deserving winning race as the only Florida-bred in the field, a boy who used to lose his shoes to a man who wins with heart. I’m also wondering what is to be done with Stay Thirsty, who unlike some, I never gave much of a chance. Race replay below

As I mentioned, I had a pretty terrible start to Saturday and after the Suburban fell through for me, I just decided to take a walk, even after looking at some promising odds for Turbo Compressor (at the time 6-1, at post 5-2) in the United Nations Stakes (I). Yes, I was going to bet on him, a rail horse bent on pace-setting a 1 3/8-mile grass race, but I didn’t. Agh, I should have! While Slim Shadey [GB] was debatably the horse to beat at this type of race with a potential upsetter in Arch Support, Turbo Compressor set up cozy fractions while being too far out in front to be caught at the end— a setup far too perfect for him, and in a nice G1 that gives him a free pass into the Breeders’ Cup Turf (I). Now whether Pletcher can keep him fit, that’s another question. Watch race replay here.

I think I once again let the “experts” get into my head, naysaying Mucho Macho Man as the east’s best handicap horse just because he won two at Gulfstream and placed third in fiercer competition in Kentucky. It wouldn’t be the first time they wrongly dissed a Florida-bred (hello Turbulent Descent, Awesome Feather). This was one horse you knew would be a bombshell at four once he grew into his body… well done to Mike Smith and MMM!

I think I once again let the “experts” get into my head, naysaying Mucho Macho Man as the east’s best handicap horse just because he won two at Gulfstream and placed third in fiercer competition in Kentucky. It wouldn’t be the first time they wrongly dissed a Florida-bred (hello Turbulent Descent, Awesome Feather). This was one horse you knew would be a bombshell at four once he grew into his body… well done to Mike Smith and MMM!

Crush of Champions Align in Suburban ‘Cap

A crush of three G1 winners and plenty of Bernardini spam.

Inching closer to yet another titanic Saratoga meet, Met Milers and Whitney hopefuls alike join together to prep for the big grade 1s starting off with the Suburban Handicap (II) at Belmont Park. The race has a nice history of producing powerful classic players including last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup (I) winner Flat Out. Milers and routers can and have won this race, so it’s just a little tougher to gauge knowing it will take the right strategy to figure out who will come out on top.

The Long Beach Handicap came up a little paltrier than expected, and we all know Game On Dude’s going to win the Gold Cup, so this will be the one and only race this week being handicapped. For this race, I’m looking hard at pace, current form, and skill at one-turn routes.

$350,000 Suburban Handicap (II) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/8 miles on dirt at Monmouth Park. Post Time: Sunday, July 8 at

[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, Impost, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]

1) Stay Thirsty - Javier Castellano, 117 lbs, Todd Pletcher - The Bernardini colt replicated his sire’s Jim Dandy-Travers double last year and took a good long breather after his form went rocky in the fall. He was a well-rated second behind a trim Trickmeister in his only start of the year and loves New York. Always a hard horse to pinpoint, Pletcher says he looks like he did leading up to the Travers last year. Coming off the rail and against some serious contenders, I’m not going to favor him.

1a) Caixa Eletronica - Eddie Castro, 117 lbs, Todd Pletcher - I have a tough time trying to beat the Arromanches son that is part of the Repole one-two punch. A winner across various distances with 3 out of 6 races won this year, while Caixa’s a jack of all trades and master of none, he’s a live longshot here should he keep a gear in reserve.

2) Endorsement - Martin Garcia, 116 lbs, Eoin Harty - The only non-Lasix entry is this up and coming Distorted Humor colt, who has kept a habit of leading the cavalry charge and doing generally well to stay in front. He was third last out in the Pimlico Special (III), beaten just a length. He has finished off the board just once in 9 career starts and has been breezing long and lean. Endorsement should benefit from the presence of the gotta-have-the-lead Trickmeister. Like, like, like from a horseman point of view.

3) Buffum - Rajiv Maragh, 115 lbs, Tom Albertrani - The Godolphin-owned Bernardini lightweight may have fizzled in his stakes attempts, but won his last allowance start at a mile by an overwhelming 8 lengths over some good horses. Looks to be a good router that could take advantage of the pace, but how good is he right now? He has a lot of proven winners to beat here as a non-stakes winner.

4) Hymn Book - Alan Garcia, 118 lbs, Claude McGaughey - I picked this Arch gelding to win last year’s Suburban (2nd) and the Donn (I) and was overjoyed to see him fly out of the clouds in the latter. While he has been spotty lately, there’s ample hope that with a clean trip and a quick pace he could wind up on the front end again. Thanks to news sources, Shug’s gelding probably won’t get as nice a value as I would like to see, but he surely does have decent chances as one of three G1 winners in this field.

5) Trickmeister - Ramon Dominguez, 117 lbs, Rick Dutrow - A force to be reckoned with, the Proud Citizen son was beaten just once when 6th in the Donn Handicap (I), but bounced back to win an overnight stakes over Stay Thirsty, both horses recording nice speed figures. Should Trickmeister settle into an easy pace, he’ll be tough to catch. However, with some other quick horses in here he will face a lot of pressure either way.

6) Mucho Macho Man - Mike Smith, 118 lbs, Kathy Ritvo - The Macho Uno colt is arguably one of the best four-year-olds winning the Gulfstream Sunshine Millions for Florida-breds followed by the Gulfstream Handicap (II). He was no match for Successful Dan in the Alysheba (III), but hung in there for third and has been singing tunes in his works. His fans might hurt his betting value a bit and while I don’t think he’s good enough to win at this point in time, he should be considered in exotics.

7) To Honor and Serve - Jose Lezcano, 120 lbs, Bill Mott - I’m already biased to favor this Bernardini colt to win, having been a huge fan of his since seeing his mug in the Remsen (II). I favored him to win the Met Mile (I) where he chugged home third after being trapped on the rail. From the outside, I see little reason to not consider him a heavy threat as a horse who likes the track and the distance. And have you seen his lightning works?

Top Picks in Order:

1) To Honor and Serve

2) Endorsement

3) Hymn Book

Overall, a tough field to crack, but I really like To Honor and Serve (again) now that he’ll likely have a much cleaner trip. Hymn Book has a lot to prove after some sketchy starts, and there’s a possibility Trickmeister could slow it down as he did in that overnight stakes to beat Stay Thirsty. Endorsement has a great chance all-around to be up there.

Value Pick: Endorsement

With the Suburban Handicap coming up this weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to Flat Out—  the winner of last year’s Suburban and Jockey Club Gold Cup— since a horrendous try on turf earlier this year. Turns out this weekend he’ll be running in Monmouth’s one-mile Monmouth Cup (II). While he’s the best horse in the field, new trainer Bill Mott admit he is not up to 100% just yet off a layoff. I would say without looking too much into the PP’s that his biggest threat is Todd Pletcher trainee San Pablo, who ran well in New York this year almost beating out one of my favorites Marilyn’s Guy. Joel Rosario will be up on San Pablo while Rosie Napravnik has the call on Flat Out.

With the Suburban Handicap coming up this weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to Flat Out—  the winner of last year’s Suburban and Jockey Club Gold Cup— since a horrendous try on turf earlier this year. Turns out this weekend he’ll be running in Monmouth’s one-mile Monmouth Cup (II). While he’s the best horse in the field, new trainer Bill Mott admit he is not up to 100% just yet off a layoff. I would say without looking too much into the PP’s that his biggest threat is Todd Pletcher trainee San Pablo, who ran well in New York this year almost beating out one of my favorites Marilyn’s Guy. Joel Rosario will be up on San Pablo while Rosie Napravnik has the call on Flat Out.

Going to the Thoroughbred races, keeping "track" of the memories. Obsessively providing a comprehensive and personal glance at the sport of kings through original photography, handicapping analysis, editorials, and much more.

Tracks visited: Calder, Saratoga, Belmont, Suffolk, Aqueduct.


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